Power to The Kink!
Black women’s hair is a subject that arouses strong emotions and controversy. In Hair Power Skin Revolution, a collection of personal essays and stories, and poems by black and mixed-race women, Nicole Moore ignites a new dialogue on the subject, poignant and powerful, she chronicles why black women need to develop an eternal love affair with their natural hair and skin.
“Hair and identity are intrinsically linked – whether you think you are just wearing a hairstyle – your hair style does say something about you,” says Moore, matter-of-factly, an indication of her passion to create a platform where black and mixed-race women could have an interactive dialogue of visual and written expressions about the road to ‘Nappturality.’ Reading the diverse voices featured in Hair Power Skin Revolution, two questions kept leaping out: Do black women, regardless of our geographical location, not like themselves, the natural way they were born? And what constitutes good hair and beautiful skin – by extension, what defines black beauty?
“In my opinion, no one has the authority and right to define what is beautiful. However, beauty standards exist and because they are westernised and one dimensional, one size fits all standards, there does appear to be a lot of pressure for women to adopt these impossible to reach standards. Putting themselves through unnecessary and hard to sustain beauty regimes,” says Moore. For a long time now, it seems having straight hair is the most culturally acceptable definition of “good hair.” For some it was the norm. For others, it is a matter of convenience. It is estimated the US hair and skin industry is worth over $9bn – in 2008, sales of home relaxers was a staggering $45.6m. The subject of talk shows and films, from Chris Rocks’ Good Hair to Akila Chopfield’s, The Politics of Black Women’s Hair – the web/blogosphere is always sizzling with numerous articles dedicated to the right and wrong of black women’s hair.
Growing up as a mixed-race child, Moore, who now wears her hair in locks admits to feeling trapped as by her skin and hair as she tried to form her own identity. As such she tried to form her own identity and managed to “define a strong sense of self and developed a positive black identity. This kept me safe and strong in a society that measures people mostly from a white male and western perspective. I realised I couldn’t change the colour of my skin, what I had to change was how I felt about my skin.” Moore adds that she was glad to have the likes of Angela Davis, who became an iconic figure for sporting an afro during the civil rights struggle, as a role model.
In April and September 2010, the stories of Janet Bellow, Jackie Sherrill and Patrick Richardson raised eyebrows in the US once again about the issue of black hair. It was reported by Black Voices online that in the case of Richardson, his school had told him, in order to attend Homecoming festivities; he would have to cut his dreadlocks. While Bello and Sherrill were refused employment because their dreadlocks did not meet the company’s grooming policy. If the way black people choose to wear their hair is still a determining factor on how they are treated in social and work circles, is this a valid reason to do as society demands?
“The main issue arises because we are taking control of our hair and this goes against the status quo and in some sections of society, like schools and most institutions, there is a sense of confronting and fitting in rather than being an individual and being unique,” says Moore, adding: “Unfortunately, wearing natural hair is still a real issue for lots of black women, particularly those who may be the only black woman in their corporate work environment and I imagine it is the same for men with locks. We live in a westernised/British society that is extremely visual and places emphasis on how we look. You might think London and its multicultural society would provide the opportunity and platform for every look, but the media is dominant and still gives more authority and credibility to European features and Africa-Caribbean people who are the closest to that look.”
On the other side of the coin, Ursula Burns wears her hair natural and she is the first African-American woman to head a major public company in the US. She was ranked by Forbes as the 14th most powerful woman in the world back in 2009. While Fortune magazine placed her at ninth position in 2010. Chrissette Michele is a Grammy award winning artist, she too went for the scissors in 2010, after which she wrote a poem titled Freedom on her website. It cannot be denied they are in prominent positions and that could also work to their advantage. Hence, when Moore is questioned about the excuse that chemically straightened hair is “easier to manage,” Moore said: “It’s difficult. I have in the past, relaxed and permed my hair, and continued to do so. There was a pressure to keep going to hairdressers to achieve the ‘look’ but this continuous hair regime puts our hair under a lot of stress and can cause long term damage. It’s a vicious circle and takes some conscious soul searching to stop and consider another alternative.”
Now a strong advocate of natural over processed hair, she adds: “People should make their own decisions. Who am I to judge how black women should wear their hair? It is not enough to blame what society expects as the reason black women bleach their skin or process their hair and wear weaves. The issue of responsibility goes both ways.”
Margaret Auguste, one of the book’s contributors writes: “Our physical relationship to our skin colour is not only external but both personal and intimate.” Moore adds further: “The hierarchy of skin complexion is a dominant issue within westernised beauty standards, as the beauty and fashion industries still maintain a closed shop when it comes to the selection and promotion of models. In women’s magazines, on catwalks, even shop dummies, dark skin is rarely seen. In this context, light skin and straight hair affirm superior human status.
“It must be acknowledged that black women must search and question themselves as to why they feel the need to invest in creams which do them more harm than good. The argument that fair skin is perceived to be more beautiful and desirable will no longer cut it because there is information out there, which talks about its dangers. They must also ask why they are not affirming themselves in spite of external forces since it is claimed that beauty is skin deep.”
Based on the experiences of the women whose voices we hear in the book, the negative relationship with their hair and skin started at a young age as Moore, Nicole Epe and the other contributors talk about their painful hair days. Moore points out that contributors share how they had no control over their hair and they were often on the receiving end of negative comments about their hair, especially if their hair was hard to ‘manage’, which had a profound on their identity. “This leaves a legacy of continuing the journey of trying to ‘manage’ hair usually with the use of chemicals. Black women then have to undo the socialisation, which is a real challenge and usually one that they have to confront single-handedly. I think it is crucial that we as adults don’t use terms such as ‘good’ hair, which often means straight hair, because black hair is naturally curly and there is nothing wrong with that.”
Some of the strongest themes which come through in the book are ‘acceptance’ and ‘empowerment’ as they navigate their struggles on the journey to reclaiming their hair, skin and defining their individual beauty path. “Acceptance is essential as you do have to like what you see when you look in the mirror and it is important that you have a choice. Acceptance of ourselves, first and foremost matters; no one should feel under pressure to wear their hair a particular way to be accepted just like no one should feel the need to lighten their skin,” says Moore.
Moore concludes: “The more we challenge the stereotypes which seek to influence our lives, the more society will be forced to accept us on our own terms and that can only happen when we collectively share and confront our own fears of wearing our hair the way we want to.”
Bio: Nicole Moore was born in London of Guyanese and English parentage. She is a freelance writer/editor and published poet, with experience of producing work for magazines and poetry anthologies. She is the editor of Brown Eyes (2005) and Sexual Attraction Revealed (2007) both Shangwe produced anthologies of creative expressions by black and mixed-race women. Nicole is a member of The Society of Authors.
You can find her at: www.shangwe.com
Hair Power Skin Revolution is edited by Nicole Moore and is Shangwe’s third anthology of poems and personal essays by Black and Mixed-Race women. It is published by Troubador Publishing Ltd, UK.
Images are copyright of Nicole Moore and Shangwe.
Chrissette Michelle’s image is courtesy of Google but copyright belongs to artist and her management.